Are you afraid of the dark?
Horror movies can go one of two ways for me: being generic bullshit that I’ll forget about within a month or become a permanent fixture of creepiness in my mind. But sometimes they reside in the eternally damned spot, competently well made but doesn’t do much for me because it uses nothing but jump scares. So it’s not really a scary horror movie, it just startles you. Such is the case with Lights Out.
Anyways, we got Teresa Palmer (who I swear looks like a Kristen Stewart clone…that can consistently act well) who’s been living alone away from her mother who suffered from depression and possible hallucinations after her father left them. She’s got a younger half-brother she’s close enough with in Gabriel Bateman as Martin who hasn’t been sleeping due to their mother talking to an imaginary friend…an imaginary friend that Martin can see in darkness. Teresa Palmer’s character, Rebecca, is concerned by this news because its the same reason she left in the first place. Together, they uncover the strange case of their mother’s friend, Diana, who suffers from creepy Japanese school-girl syndrome: fucking with people’s heads, hideous as all hell, and uncanny ability to not fucking die.
The monster in this movie lurks around in darkness, similar to the short film it’s based off of. Now the cool part is, that’s a fucking scary ghost. It can only harm you when it’s in darkness, but it’s invisible in light. You might think to keep the lights on, but if your home suffers a power outage, you could be in deep trouble. Plus, a flashlight can only give you a limited source of light allowing the monster to come at you from a different perspective. The movie takes advantage of all these ideas, but my main criticism is that it’s a limited pool of ideas.
The first two minutes (very similar to the original short and featuring the same actress as the short) quickly plays out the film’s main hand in demonstrating forced perspective and usage of light to demonstrate the presence of this creature. It’s creepy enough, and the monster’s twisted movements are scary on their own to be disturbing, but this only allows the monster to simply surprise you at every opportunity it gets.
This really isn’t my cup of tea for horror. It’s fine, it’s serviceable, but it’s not the kind of scary movie that really excites me. It just decides to spook you whenever it has a chance (which is roughly a third of this entire movie) particularly towards the end. Now granted, I’ll give the filmmakers credit that they manage to create a foreboding atmosphere on such a limited budget, but it’s not really filling me with dread the way a movie like It Follows accomplishes. That film succeeded for me by presenting a monster that only the victim and their sexual partners can see, and presents itself to them in the form of a stranger or a close friend and relative before viciously (and sexually) destroying them. You were constantly paranoid about every angle that your protagonist couldn’t see, and the random people in the background on the suspicion that they could be the monster.
So here’s an opportunity to use darkness, horror films’ greatest tool, to give you a monster that can attack from anywhere, anytime. And yet I never found myself scared of the monster. The pacing of this film felt off to me, which surprised me because this is an incredibly short film (clocking in at only 81 minutes) and yet I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time in constant paranoia. I was just on guard waiting for the next jump scare to happen and that really didn’t do it for me.
Thankfully the cast aren’t your generic horror movie fodder. Teresa Palmer and Gabriel Bateman both prove themselves to be likable leads, and it’s clear they have a tortured relationship with their mother, played here by Maria Bello. The presence of the monster is completely attributable to her and Bello gives you a pretty interesting depiction of someone surrendering to their darker impulses as they allow themselves to slide into heavy depression. Would make for an interesting tale on loved ones trying to deal with those with chronic mental illnesses in the hands of a more experienced writer or director, but the potential is zipped away for the spookhouse treatment instead.
Oh well, at least the main protagonists show a degree of survival instinct and do all the logical things one would do: try to runaway at first (even though the monster won’t stop chasing you down), arm yourself with tools that can protect you, knowing when to flee to get help, and believing someone’s story given the wealth of evidence presented. These are all positives that a lesser film would have easily botched.
And the short length prevents the movie from dragging out its core concept before they ran out of ideas…although that’s probably why it’s so short. After the ending to this movie, I really can’t see the potential for sequel hooks given everything you learn about Diana and how she operates. Plus the movie drags on during the middle as it sets up the climax, so the movie kind of feels like it’s spinning its wheels while the rest of the movie gets ready. Here, a bunch of narrative problems present themselves like why didn’t Teresa Palmer’s character immediately get alerted to the fact of Diana’s presence when Martin mentioned her name and how Maria Bello’s character’s drugs were affecting Diana’s grip on her.
I can’t say this is an immediate theater trip to me. The length and the insubstantiality of it all doesn’t really warrant paying full price or even a matinee to me. But if you’ve got some free time and want to check out a decent horror flick, you could do a hell of a lot worse than this. I’ll give this a high…